Motion of the Ocean: Heist series sputters back to life
By: Matt Brunson
During the first decade of the 21st century, filmgoers could count on Steven Soderbergh gifting them a new Ocean’s flick every few years. The behind-the-scenes gist was presumably the same for all three pictures — basically, a bunch of movie stars got together with their directing buddy to shoot a few sequences in between their nonstop partying through European and American hotspots — but, in a reversal of the norm, here was a franchise that actually improved as it progressed.
The 2001 release Ocean’s Eleven, a remake of a middling Rat Pack movie from 1960, offered amusing turns from Brad Pitt, Bernie Mac and Elliott Gould but otherwise had little going on beneath its air of cool collectedness. The 2004 follow-up Ocean’s Twelve added a few more narrative complications and made better use of its all-star cast (particularly Matt Damon and Julia Roberts). Yet it wasn’t until 2007’s Ocean’s Thirteen that everything clicked just right, largely because it was the first film where it truly felt like there was something at stake in its convoluted, house-of-cards plotline.
Those cards take something of a tumble in Ocean’s 8 (two and a half stars out of four), not so much a reboot of the franchise as a continuation with different players. Soderbergh is still attached as producer (The Hunger Games’ Gary Ross takes over as director), Gould returns briefly as Reuben Tishkoff to maintain some semblance of continuity, and there are frequent discussions centered around George Clooney’s Danny Ocean, who supposedly has died in the interim (I say supposedly, because it’s routinely pondered throughout the film as to whether he’s really dead, just in case Clooney ever opts to return to the fold for an easy paycheck).
The central character is now Danny’s sister Debbie (Sandra Bullock), just wrapping up a jail sentence and eager to pull off a massive score. Her idea is to steal a necklace valued at $150 million — easier schemed than done since said bauble has been kept in an underground vault for the past few decades. But Debbie sets into motion a plot that will result in the necklace being worn to the Met Gala by pampered movie star Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), at which point she plans to pilfer the jewelry. To assist her in her robbery, she assembles a team whose members include her BFF and former partner in crime (Cate Blanchett), a computer hacker (Rihanna), a fence (Sarah Paulson), a forger (Mindy Kaling), a street hustler (Awkwafina), and the fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter) who will be dressing Daphne for the Met charity event.
To paraphrase Julie Andrews (and maybe Emily Blunt?) as Mary Poppins, Debbie’s plan is practically perfect in every way — which helps explain why the movie is anything but. Heist flicks rely on things going wrong to ratchet up that tension and provide a series of savory twists and turns, but Ross (co-scripting with Olivia Milch) ends up devising a caper scheme that runs too smoothly. As such, there’s only one significant plot twist and zero complications, leading to a narrative woefully lacking in any manner of intrigue or suspense.
Fortunately, many of the players provide some oomph to the proceedings. Like Clooney before them, Bullock and Blanchett are required to do nothing more than coast on their movie-star charms, but Carter is amusingly flighty, Rihanna is appropriately self-assured, and Awkwafina manages to steal some scenes right along with those diamonds. There’s also a late-inning appearance by James Corden, who’s very funny as a persistent investigator sent by the insurance company to locate the necklace. It initially appears as if Corden’s character will goose the story in an unexpected direction, but like everyone else (meaning those in the audience), he’s just there to admire the pretty people and remains amused at the lightheartedness of it all.
LIKE MARTIN SCORSESE with religion and Clint Eastwood with gun culture, Paul Schrader has spent a huge chunk of his career as a writer and/or director examining the omniscient specter of violence — how it’s triggered, how it manifests itself, and how it’s ultimately settled. It would be facile to say he has finally found his definitive answer in First Reformed (three and a half stars out of four), but it might be accurate to state that the writer of Taxi Driver, Hardcore and Light Sleeper has added another puzzle piece that allows the image to come into sharper focus than before.
A haunting and meditative work that also centers on Schrader’s other topic of note — religion (no surprise from a man who was raised by strict Calvinists and not able to see a movie until he was 17) — First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke as Reverend Toller, a parish pastor living in upstate New York. Still feeling remorse over the fact that he urged his son to volunteer to fight in the Iraq war — a suggestion that led to his boy’s death — Toller divides his time between delivering sermons to his mostly empty church and hitting the bottle. But after one of his parishioners, the pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks him to speak to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who might be harboring suicidal tendencies, Toller finds his sense of purpose renewed. But it also leads to a string of conflicts — with a church organization that is increasingly more devoted to profits than people, with a venal right-wing sponsor (Michael Gaston) who uses his philanthropy to mask his utter contempt for the earth and its inhabitants, and, most tellingly, with his own attitudes toward righteousness and redemption.
Like practically all of Schrader’s protagonists — even Jesus himself in the Scorsese-directed, Schrader-scripted The Last Temptation of Christ — Reverend Toller is a tortured individual whose ultimate reckoning must be through a trial of violence. Yet one of the most intriguing aspects about First Reformed is its inexorable march toward a climax that seems preordained. Or is it? Without resorting to spoilers, suffice to note that the conclusion is one that’s open to interpretation and certain to invigorate and infuriate audience members in equal measure. If that appears to be a cop-out on Schrader’s part, it’s actually the proper denouement for a work as curious and challenging as this one.
NEWBIE WRITER-DIRECTOR Ari Aster makes a startling film debut with Hereditary (three stars out of four), the sort of slow-burn horror yarn that gets under the skin with needlepoint precision.
Toni Collette delivers a bravura performance as Annie Graham, an artist whose mother has just passed away. Annie and Mom weren’t close, but the tensions don’t end there. Mental illness runs in Annie’s family, and her relationships with her son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) are, at best, awkward. For his part, Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) patiently tries to keep everyone calm and behaved. Yet that proves exceedingly difficult once tragedy hits the family unit and matters take a supernatural turn.
Although there are moments of shocking brutality and gore, Aster’s emphasis is on establishing and maintaining a sense of genuine dread. Such an approach places the picture in the company of such earlier works as Rosemary’s Baby, Vampyr, Diabolique and the underrated ‘70s effort The Mephisto Waltz — high praise indeed. If this film never quite ascends to their heights (that climax is awfully busy and rather rushed), it’s nevertheless an impressive calling card that Aster can whip out at future studio pitches.